Nicholas Hawksmoor's eccentrically magnificent Baroque masterpiece Christ Church, Spitalfields, has come a long way since it faced demolition back in the 1960s.
Nicholas Hawksmoor's eccentrically magnificent Baroque masterpiece Christ Church, Spitalfields, has come a long way since it faced demolition back in the 1960s. After decades in which the gaunt, grey, variously scaffolded interior resembled a Piranesi prison engraving, it has re-emerged - thanks to the assiduous efforts of its trustees and restorers - in dazzling dove-grey and white, its gallery woodwork glowing in the light of brazen chandeliers.
Has a little of its craggy romantic grandeur been lost in this purist makeover? One thing that has not changed is its volatile acoustic. Place a period-instrument orchestra of some 40 players on a stage across the chancel end, plus a vocal soloist or two in front and a small choir behind; get them to sing and play quietly; and the sound blooms with the loveliest colours. Raise the volume to anything above mezzo-forte, and the resonance begins to jangle fiercely around the high roof and under the galleries. This concert, inaugurating the residency at Christ Church of Paul McCreesh's Gabrieli Consort and Players, was sometimes better than it sounded.
That was immediately apparent as the young Swedish soprano Camilla Tilling tore into the fierce opening recitative of Beethoven's concert scena "Ah! Perfido" - the acoustic seeming to exaggerate and spread every tremor of intensity in her voice. It was only in later, more yielding phrases that her true focus and radiance came through. The mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly fared better in Haydn's remarkable late "Scena di Berenice", partly because the final rampage reverts to the stark textures of the middle-period symphonies.
McCreesh was evidently making a point in juxtaposing those two secular treatments of ladies abandoned with a liturgical celebration of a lady very much affirmed. Mozart projected his great Mass in C minor, K427, as a thanksgiving for his marriage to Constanza, who took the extensive soprano lead at its first performance - and pretty good she must have been to negotiate the wide leaps and florid runs he gave her. Why he never completed the "Credo" or, apparently, tackled the "Agnus Dei" at all is unknown. Was he perhaps perplexed as to how to clinch a work of such extraordinary stylistic diversity?
Yet not even the building's edgy reverberance could alloy the severe splendour of the marmoreal, Baroque-style choruses, as declaimed by the Gabrieli Consort and finely paced by McCreesh. And, among the solo items that revert to the Salzburg rococo manner of Mozart's earlier masses - once naughtily described by Stravinsky as "operatic sweets of sin" - Tilling came into her own in the "Et incarnatus est", phrasing with exquisite purity and poise.
Catch the next Gabrieli concert, featuring Biber's Requiem, on 24 November, amid the bold perspectives, if rather more complex resonances, of this extraordinary building.
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